Harlequin, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-373-83769-4
Contemporary Romance, 2012
Now that Harlequin is currently being bandied around online as the publishing house that stiffs its authors of decent earnings and treats them as cattle suited only to churn out short books in the Duncan Mill Road sweatshop, perhaps it is timely that we all take a deep breath and remember that Harlequin also prides itself as “a leader in supporting and promoting causes that are of concern to women”, or so the CEO Donna Hayes puts it in the introduction of this anthology. Okay, so “making sure that our female authors who aren’t named Nora Roberts or Debbie Macomber have enough to eat” may not be a cause worth promoting, but look! The evidence is in this anthology More Than Words!
As Ms Hayes, philanthropist to non-authorial women in need everywhere, puts it, More Than Words is a program launched by Harlequin to recognize women who run worthy charities. Every year, Harlequin donates to three such women $15,000 each – an amount that, from what I gather, is about two to three times the typical advance offered by this publisher to midlist or new authors. Let’s look at the bright side: the money that is not going to Harlequin authors is being channeled to charities devoted to making grieving widows, women with terminal diseases, and other sad people happy! Maybe it’s time that some folks form a charity for starving authors – maybe the Ann Voss Peterson Foundation for Writing Women of Want – and petition to receive the $15,000 prize. Won’t that be appropriate?
Even better, proceeds from this book will be channeled back into More Than Words, no doubt to be used as prize money for more women of worth! Harlequin: the charity that keeps giving. How can anyone be grouchy about this wonderful, wonderful publishing house? So, it is most appropriate that this anthology works extra hard to demonstrate to me that people with terminal diseases and dead babies are just the most noble and courageous people ever. The better for me to open my purse extra big by the time the next volume comes around, after all.
And there is no better person to kick off this literary equivalent of a charity telethon than Debbie Macomber, the Sally Struthers of the romance genre. Okay, a quick search on Google tells me that, despite the anthology having a copyright date of 2012, this story has been published before, spookily enough in the second volume of an anthology that has the same title has this. But that only tells us that charity is evergreen, right?
What Amanda Wants is supposed to be about this young lady, Amanda, who has leukemia. She has almost convinced herself that the cancer has gone in the last ten years, but it’s back. And it looks bad. Sad violins play as Amanda the Noble Cancer Girl tries to deal with her disease even as her mother begins making it all about her, her boyfriend leaves her for a healthier girl, and more. Poor Amanda has to find some way to keep her head above everything as she seems to be pulled apart in all directions.
There is an embryo of a good story here: if this story has focused on Amanda and her best friend Annie, this one would have been a very poignant tale of a young lady who manages to find the strength within her to overcome the gloom and doom that weighs her down, and gain an uplifting and inspiring new outlook. No matter how much time she has left, Amanda will live life to the fullest and help other teenagers who are suffering from cancer just like her. Amanda’s vulnerable reactions ring painfully true here, and just as real – and heartbreaking to read – is how well-meaning people often hurt Amanda the most in their misguided kindness to protect her, often by inadvertently suffocating her or wounding her with their obvious pity.
Unfortunately, Ms Macomber ruins this story completely by introducing adults who behave little better than mouthpieces, yammering preachy PSA tracts and lecturing me about how getting cancer magically turns one into the most noble and bravest person on earth. The whole rather paradoxical “cancer people need our help and support, but they are so strong, noble, brave, amazing, and wonderful” PSA is hammered onto me with the pitch of a… I don’t know, it’s like Sally Struthers, intoxicated on too much caffeine, reaching out from the TV screen, grabbing my throat, and shaking me hard as she screams in my ears, “SAY IT! PEOPLE WITH CANCER ARE WONDERFUL AND TOUCHING! AND WHY AREN’T YOU CRYING YET, YOU HEARTLESS BITCH? AND REMEMBER, ALL DONATIONS ARE NON-TAXABLE!”
Ms Macomber actually inserts the lady who inspired this story into the damned tale at a very late point, turning this woman into some kind of angel figuratively descending from the sky to bring hope and benevolence to all those frail and beautiful girls with cancer. If I have known that all it takes to make me the most beloved person on earth is a metastatic tumor, I’d have happily thrown myself into a tub of radioactive goo thirty years ago.
Brenda Novak’s Small Packages is next. The title, by the way, has nothing to do with the hero’s state of endowment. We may be charitable people, but there are clearly some conditions afflicting the other sex that we refuse to be concerned about. This story is inspired by some woman who started a non-profit venture to donate “Memory Boxes” to hospitals, to be used by women who have lost their children, either at birth or later, to store trinkets and mementos. Noelle Kane lost her baby six months ago, so now she creates and donates Memory Boxes, delivering them to the local hospital even if stepping foot in that place makes her want to hyperventilate. She meets Harrison Fellatio, sorry, Ferello, who has just lost his girlfriend-of-sorts and one kid.
Saddled with one more kid (his floozy gave birth to twins, and only one survives), this concerned gentleman is wondering how he can give away the baby – a loving family, of course – as he is going to a hot doctor with bills to pay, lives to save, and hot nurses to shag. Who has the time to change dirty diapers? You don’t see George Clooney or Goran Visjnic waking up at 3am to feed a crying baby on ER, do you?
Noelle immediately wants to adopt that kid, and Harrison, after getting confirmation from Noelle that she has never been sexually molested as a child so she will never molest his kid, believes that she will be a good mother. Unlike, of course, his dead girlfriend whom he only slept with because… er, he has needs, I guess, even if that woman is crazy and he’s not even sure that the kid is his. As you can tell, Father of the Year isn’t exactly grieving over his recent bereavements. Then again, if there is a crazy woman who is willing to sleep with him and raise his kid without asking for even a cent from him, who needs to do that silly grieving thing? Charitable women are so hot and fun, offering hope and free orgasms plus babysitting and laundry service to widowers everywhere. Guys, just call the Harlequin toll-free number for more information.
The relationship in Small Packages is utterly unhealthy, with the heroine clearly too damaged to embark on a relationship and a hero who has Madonna/Whore and Daddy issues up the wazoo. But hey, it won’t be so bad. There will be plenty of Memory Boxes to store all those broken hearts and shattered promises that will no doubt await these two on the road ahead.
Meryl Sawyer has the thankless task of writing a story inspired by a “kids, eat right and you won’t get fat” non-profit effort. Worth the Risk is the least preachy story here. Perhaps this is to be expected, as it’s probably not wise to lecture readers of this anthology on the dangers of being overweight and ruin the immersion effect. Therefore, this story focuses instead of a tug-of-war between Lexi Morrison and Brad Wescott over the future of Amber, Lexi’s sister, after Amber decides to work at Brad’s restaurant.
This is a romance, but it’s a bizarre and disturbing one. Lexi is an overly-controlling sister who suffocates poor Amber to the point that she is just one pot away from being a certified bunny boiler. I can’t decide whether she or Noelle will better qualify as the More Than Words mother of the year. Brad takes perverse delight in correcting Lexy – as a man in a romance novel, he’s naturally right way too often – and interfering in Lexi’s relationship with Amber. When these two decide to go out and make out at the end of the story, I definitely see good tidings of joy in their future. After all, he likes to berate, browbeat, belittle, and patronize her while she grits her teeth and tries not to scream in hysterical overwrought overreaction to everything and anything. They are perfectly suited for each other! After these two eventually kill each other, Noelle can make Amber two big pretty Memory Boxes to help her overcome her grief.
Honestly, if you believe that Harlequin is a villainous corporate pustule of a publisher, you only have to turn to concrete well-written evidences like More Than Words to realize that all that whinging and whining about money is so deplorably selfish. There are so many sad people out there in this world: noble people with cancer and desperate childless women in need of a baby to smother and suffocate, out there. They all need our money help! Harlequin is taking big steps to make these people happy. It’s time we also all come together to heal the world and make it a better place for you and for me and the entire human race! I’ll do my part – just tell me where the paper recycling bin is.